The Education of Thomas Edison

Homeschooling Paved the Way for Edison's Success

In 1854, Reverend G. B. Engle belittled one of his students, seven-year-old Thomas Alva Edison, as “addled.” This outraged the youngster, and he stormed out of the Port Huron, Michigan school, the first formal school he had ever attended. His mother, Nancy Edison, brought him back the next day to discuss the situation with Reverend Engle, but she became angry at his rigid ways. Everything was forced on the kids. She withdrew her son from the school where he had been for only three months and resolved to educate him at home. Although he seems to have briefly attended two more schools, nearly all his childhood learning took place at home.

Thus arose the legend that Thomas Alva Edison (born February 11, 1847) became America’s most prolific inventor—1,093 patents for such wonders as the microphone, telephone receiver, stock ticker, phonograph, movies, office copiers, and incandescent electric light—despite his lack of schooling.

For years, he looked the part of the improbable, homespun genius: five feet, 10 inches tall, gray eyes, long hair that looked as if he cut it himself, baggy acid-stained pants, scruffy shoes, and hands discolored by chemicals. Later he took to wearing city clothes—black. On more than one occasion passers-by mistook him for a priest and respectfully tipped their hats.

Yet Edison probably gained a far better education than most children of his time or ours. This wasn’t because his mother had official credentials. She had taught school, but only a little. Nor was it because his parents had money. They were poor and lived on the outskirts of a declining town. Nancy Edison’s secret: she was more dedicated than any teacher was likely to be, and she had the flexibility to experiment with various ways of nurturing her son’s love for learning.

“She avoided forcing or prodding,” wrote Edison biographer Matthew Josephson, “and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love—and she was said to have been a fine reader.”

Thomas Edison plunged into great books. Before he was 12, he had read works by Shakespeare and Dickens, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Hume’s History of England, and more.

Because Nancy Edison was devoted and observant, she discovered simple ways to nurture her son’s enthusiasm. She brought him a book on the physical sciences—R. G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy, which explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home. Edison recalled this was “the first book in science I read when a boy.” It made learning fun, and he performed every experiment in the book. Then Nancy Edison brought him The Dictionary of Science which further spurred his interest. He became passionate about chemistry, spending all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacist, collecting bottles, wires, and other items for experiments. He built his first laboratory in the cellar of the family’s Port Huron house.

“Thus,” Josephson noted, “his mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.” As Edison himself put it: “My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.”

Sam Edison disapproved of all the time his son spent in the cellar. Sometimes he offered the boy a penny to resume reading literature. At 12, for example, Thomas read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages,” he recalled. Typically, though, he used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments in the cellar.

But Thomas Edison had discovered intellectual play. He wanted to learn everything he could about steam engines, electricity, battery power, electromagnetism, and especially the telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse had attracted tremendous crowds when he demonstrated the telegraph back in 1838, and telegraph lines were extended across the country by the time Thomas Edison was conducting his experiments. The idea of transmitting information over a wire utterly fascinated him. He used scrap metal to build a telegraph set and practiced the Morse code. Through his experiments, he learned more and more about electricity which was to revolutionize the world.

When the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended to Port Huron in 1859, he got a job as newsboy for the day-long run to Detroit and back. After about a year, he looked for ways to make better use of the five-hour layover in Detroit before the train made its return trip. He got permission to move his cellar laboratory equipment aboard the baggage car, so he could continue his experiments. This worked well for a while until the train lurched, spilled some chemicals, and the laboratory caught on fire.

In 1862, a train accident injured his ears, and the 15-year-old began to lose much of his hearing. Apparently, he realized that as a handicapped boy without any credentials, he must learn everything he needed to know on his own. He dramatically intensified his self-education.

“Deafness probably drove me to reading,” he reflected later. He was among the first people to use the Detroit Free Library—with card number 33—and he systematically read through it shelf by shelf. He read literature. He was thrilled by Victor Hugo’s new romantic epic, Les Miserables, especially the stories of lost children. He talked so much about the book that his friends called him “Victor Hugo” Edison.

Of course, what fascinated Edison most was science. He devoured books on electricity, mechanics, chemical analysis, manufacturing technology and more. He struggled with Isaac Newton’s Principles, which made him realize his future would be with practical matters, not theorizing.

The Joy of Learning

As a home-schooled, self-educated youth, Edison learned lessons that were to serve him all his life. He learned education was his own responsibility. He learned to take initiative. He learned to be persistent. He learned he could gain practical knowledge, inspiration and wisdom by reading books. He learned to discover all kinds of things from methodical observation. He learned education is a continuing, joyful process.

At 20, Edison got a job as itinerant Western Union telegraph operator and became remarkably proficient. He worked in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Boston, and New York. The more he learned about telegraphy, the more he wanted to learn. He took apart equipment and reassembled it until he understood how it worked. He experimented with ways to make it better. He decided that greater knowledge of chemistry would help him, so he haunted used bookstores and ordered chemistry books from London and Paris. He filled his rented rooms with chemicals and junk metal for his experiments. One associate observed: “He spent his money buying apparatus and books, and wouldn’t buy clothing. That winter he went without an overcoat and nearly froze.”

Edison’s knowledge and enterprise led to a dramatic series of inventions. On January 25, 1869, he applied for a patent on a telegraphic stock ticker which, after he filed patents for dozens of successive improvements, became standard office equipment in America and Europe. Edison invented a printing telegraph for gold bullion and foreign exchange dealers. Western Union and its rivals battled to gain control of Edison’s patents which revolutionized the telegraph business. For example, he figured out how a central telegraph office could control the performance of telegraph equipment at remote locations. He developed a method for transmitting four messages simultaneously over the same wire. Intense curiosity, nourished by his home education, drove him to become perhaps America’s best technician on telegraphy.

From his practical experience, Edison learned to make the most of unexpected opportunities. For example, on July 18, 1877, he was testing an automatic telegraph which had a stylus to read coded indentations on strips of paper. For some reason, perhaps excessive voltage, the stylus suddenly began moving so fast through the indentations that the friction resulted in a sound. It might have been only a hum, but it got Edison’s attention. His imagination made a wild leap. Explains archivist Douglas Tarr at the Edison National Historical Site, West Orange, New Jersey: “Edison seemed to reason that if a stylus going through indentations could produce a sound unintentionally, then it could produce a sound intentionally, in which case he should be able to reproduce the human voice.” A talking machine!

Edison worked out its fundamental principles in his notebooks, and on December 17, 1877, he filed a patent application for the phonograph (“sound writing”). This was no improvement of existing technology. It was something brand new, Edison’s most original invention. It was also one thing he didn’t seek to invent, unlike the light bulb, power generation systems, and other famous inventions which he deliberately pursued. Having developed the idea, Edison followed up, working on and off for more than two decades to produce recorded sound quality which would thrill millions.

With a flexible and open mind, Edison enjoyed an important advantage in the race for electric light. Other inventors were committed to refining low-resistance arc lights (then used in light houses) which required large amounts of electrical power and copper wire—the most costly part of their lighting systems. In September 1878, Edison cheerfully began considering the opposite: a high resistance system which would require far less electrical power and copper wire. This could mean small electric lights suitable for home use. By January 1879, at the laboratory he established in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison had built his first high-resistance, incandescent electric light. It worked by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in a glass vacuum bulb to delay the filament from melting.

But the lamp worked for only an hour or two. Improving performance required all the persistence Edison had learned as a child. He tested many other metals. He thought about tungsten, the metal in light bulb filaments now, but he couldn’t work with it using tools available in his day. He tried carbon. He tested carbonized filaments of every imaginable plant material, including baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He contacted biologists who could send him plant fibers from the tropics. “Before I got through,” he recalled, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” Best performer for many years: carbonized filaments from cotton thread.

This proved to be one of Edison’s most perplexing inventions. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” he wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.” Edison at the peak of his inventive powers drew inspiration, as he did in his youth, from Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea. The hero, Gilliatt, struggled against the waves, the tides and a storm to save a steamship from destruction on a reef.

Hailed as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison was often able to see possibilities others missed because he continuously educated himself about different technologies. For example, during the late 1880s and early 1890s, he read widely about the latest developments in photographic optics. He investigated the potential of tough, flexible celluloid as motion picture film and had George Eastman make 50-foot-long, 35mm wide test strips. Edison worked out the mechanical problems of advancing film steadily across a photographic lens without tearing. He linked his new motion picture camera to an improved phonograph, capturing sound synchronized with motion pictures. Then Edison developed what he called the Kinetoscope to project these “talking” images on a screen.

In 1887, Edison built a magnificent laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. It was 10 times larger than his first, fabled facility in Menlo Park. The main building alone contained some 60,000 square feet of floor space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions.

Once a day, Edison toured this vast facility to see what was going on, but he did most work in the library. It had a great hall, a 30-foot-high ceiling and two galleries. Right in the center, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by some 10,000 books. Here he would ponder new ideas and hear his associates report on their progress.

As Edison grew older, he became stouter and harder of hearing, but he remained as enthusiastic as ever about the free-wheeling pursuit of practical knowledge. In 1903, he hired Martin Andre Rosanoff, a Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist who asked about laboratory rules. “Hell,” Edison snorted, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”

After Edison died on Sunday, October 18, 1931, his coffin was placed in his beloved West Orange library for mourners to pay their respects. Rosanoff identified a key to the Old Man’s enduring fame: “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things.”